The Business Interview: Dr Casey Woodward
Dr Casey Woodward is a 29-year old scientist who is creating a buzz around improving insect welfare because, as he passionately states, “without bees, butterflies, moths, and other bugs, we'd lose more than 70% of all food crops.”
It is fascinating hearing about the excellent work these pollinating insects do. It’s more than just protecting food security there are added benefits to our ecosystems such as encouraging natural biodiversity, the removal of carbon from the atmosphere (from increased plant growth) and maximising nutritional quality.
That’s why Dr Woodward set up AgriSound, a company based at the York Biotech Campus, Sand Hutton. to develop sensor technology to better monitor and predict pollination efficiency, because, as we are all aware, pollinator numbers are declining globally. In the UK, we import bumble bees from the Mediterranean, Spain, Italy, and some from the Netherlands, primarily to introduce into large greenhouses to aid tomato production and berries. The bumble bees pollinate the crops, which is important because it boosts crop yields and makes the fruit more attractive in terms of visual characteristics for the retailer.
And according to Dr Casey Woodward, it gives genetic diversity. “It provides some nice features such as being more resistance to disease, enhanced flavour attributes and more importantly it creates genetic richness, which is important for longer term viability.”
He tells me there were two reasons for setting up the company.
“I had been working in the animal health industry and seen the tremendous power that technology can provide in terms of monitoring animal health and productivity.
“There is a real commercial opportunity. I was also really touched by the constant decline of bees and as they are so integral to our food systems, we need people looking at different approaches to make a difference and secure our food supply chains.”
People have been capturing data about pollinators for many years, but it was infamously difficult relying on an army of volunteers who sit watching crops for hours on end, counting the number of visits.
Dr Casey Woodward
AgriSound’s devices have improved the process taking the hassle and cost out of manual counting. “We collect data that can be used to help those setting policy make more bee friendly decisions. People are more aware and will adjust their lifestyles to support the natural environment.
Dr Woodward has developed a device the “size of a 50p coin that has a bunch of sensors and a little microphone that allows the user to eavesdrop on the noises the bees are making to see how healthy they are.”
In addition, the technological device “monitors the temperature of the hive so that if it gets too hot, the beekeepers know it's time to move it into the shade or place a sun guard over it.”
There's also a tracker on the device to alert the user if the hive is moved, helpful as "hive theft is a big problem in many parts of the world". There are also ways that it can detect if predators such as wasps and hornets are in the area.
"The premise behind is looking at how we can support farmers to improve their yield across the world."
He started by looking at what devices were already in the market and talking to a few sensor technology companies which were developing know-how for other industries.
“The guys we were chatting to were developing solutions for retailers, the aviation and automation industries. We wanted to see if we could repurpose some of these technologies and benefit from the economies of scale that they were being produced at.
“We ended up working with a company developing sensors for other applications which we then repurposed for bee keeping purposes. We developed a core range of products to support beekeepers and help them understand hive health and optimise the productivity of hives using the data which we capture. From there we started to develop our own series of products targeting pollinators more broadly.
Dr Woodward says we think of pollination as being honeybees, but it is much broader than that.
“Bumblebees play an important role as do butterflies, hoverflies and moths. So, we designed our own range of products to take in account pollinators more broadly and we are developing a new product, a super low cost device that can be stored in gardens and count the number of insect visits daily. Quite cool really!”
“We were looking primarily to use the applications for the domestic market but similarly we have had a lot of interest from the agriculture sector. So, from a commercial perspective people are interested at looking at mapping out where pollinator deficits are, whether that be a farm or a particular field or a polytunnel.”
Gardeners and environmental enthusiasts are really interested because as well just trying to understand how many visits people have received in their garden, it demonstrates the impact of sowing some wildflowers or creating some other bee friendly habitats.
“We are about to start work with heritage bodies to demonstrate our products and benefits to the consumer.
“We are excited about what that will look like, particularly in terms of the data we capture to create a UK pollinator abundance map.
The company is still in its Infancy being set up in January 2020. The AgriSound team raised some financial investment late last year which enabled Casey to recruit a team of five to develop the products and start the commercial roll out with its partners.
The pandemic may have affected us humans, but Dr Woodward says it’s been beneficial for bees, as the numbers have been boosted by the lack of travel and pollution during the lockdowns.
“We were lucky to receive a government grant in summer last year to support the development of our products. Part of the problem with the lockdown was the import of bumblebees into the UK were blocked, so there was a big push to start to see how we can promote indigenous populations and support them better.”
Lockdown has been great at making people aware of the challenges that pre covid lifestyles had on the environment. With everyone commuting less, Dr Woodward’s technology provided a lot of coverage about how bee numbers bounced back during 2020. The UK’s national pollinator surveys have done a good job at showcasing that and Dr Woodward is hoping to do work more to promote our natural pollinators.
His company won an Innovator of the Year award November 2020 having started a programme in December in conjunction with the Prince’s Trust and Innovate UK, which also earned him a £5,000 grant, one-on-one business coaching and an allowance to cover living costs.
It is when we get on to the subject of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that he bristles with excitement, enthusiasm, and passion.
Dr Woodward is working with several NGOs and has interest from retailers and big corporates and parts of government all of which have been engaging with AgriSound over the last 12 months. “It goes to show that there is this unwavering interest in bee and pollinator health more broadly.”
“CSR is a big part of our business and we are making sure our technologies work for commercial farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa all through to the west coast of the US.
“Our solutions are truly scalable from one hectare to 1 million hectares. That is important for us as bee keeping is an important way of helping people break free of poverty.
“We have made sure all our solutions are designed to be as affordable as possible for people in developing countries, a real big part of our African projects.”
Africa, he tells me is where you can find a wide diversity of nectar-rich plants which help to produce delicious and high value honey. There is also quite a bit of untapped potential in terms of the rising number of beekeepers.
“In West Africa we are looking at how we can support beekeepers in those areas to produce cash crops and are about to start work in East Africa to see how we can better monitor pollinators for small holders who are growing food crops there.
It is part of exploring the global agenda that excites him the most and enables him to give something back to societies across the planet but more importantly help his two children appreciate their surroundings.